Overview: Malcolm, a straight-A student and all around geek with dreams of escaping the ‘hood and attending Harvard, finds his life turned around when he’s left with a backpack full of Molly (Ecstasy). 2015; Open Road Films; Rated R; 103 minutes.
Narrative of Nostalgia: Writer and director Rick Famuyiwa’s coming of age comedy romanticizes ’90s hip-hop culture within the black community in the same way that a majority of modern teen comedies set in suburbia romanticize the ’80s. The beats and lyrics of Nas and Public Enemy replace that of Pat Benatar and Peter Gabriel; the school bullies aren’t letterman wearing jocks but red-clad Bloods; and what happens at prom is far less romantically significant than what happens on the sidewalk. Like a love-child of Spike Lee and John Hughes, Dope balances its honest portraitures of blackness and neighborhood life with teenage wish fulfillment and narrative convenience. Dope is deliberately modern and unique in its approach to filmmaking, announcing itself as far more than a sampling of familiar tracks. In terms of direction, there hasn’t been a drama or comedy this year that displays quite the same kind of visual artistry that Famuyiwa, editor Lee Haugen, and cinematographer Rachel Morrison display here. There are enough clever audio-visual tricks, from split-screen, narration, cutaways, and rewinds, to stand up against any Edgar Wright film. Inglewood has never been displayed as dynamically as it is here, and there’s never any doubt that the players behind the scenes know its streets just as well as the characters in front of the camera.
Slippery Slope: Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his friends (Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori) struggle to rid themselves of the drugs in their possession, creating a series of encounters with a motley crew of local drug dealers and criminals, Pineapple Express-style. While a few too many plot lines are introduced and the pacing sags at times, each of these encounters shapes Malcolm, pulling him between who he thinks he is, who he wants to be, and what the media says a young black man is. He’s no more or less of an outsider than any teenage protagonist faced with the future, but his racial identity gives extra-weight to these thematic decisions. From multiple perspectives, Malcolm’s choice to sell the drugs he was accidently left with rather than go to the police or face the dealer threatening his life, is a poor decision. But the film shows that the agency behind these bad choices doesn’t make someone a thug, only that we weigh the decisions of young black men more heavily than those of young white men who make the same mistakes. For the most part, the film doesn’t overstate its themes, keeping the narrative lighthearted and the humor in rhythm with the former, while the more serious contextual issues are submerged below the narrative surface, waiting for those willing to look a little deeper.
Taking Back the Oreo: As someone who has heard frequently for most of my life that I act white because of grades, interests, and speech patterns, Dope was a uniquely identifiable experience. I’m sure that others out there who’ve gone through similar experiences will also find something to connect to, because people like Malcolm aren’t exceptions to a norm, but part of a much larger population hidden beneath socially mandated peer pressure, and a poorly sketched-out media portrayal of the African American experience and culture. Dope is a means for everyone to learn that blackness isn’t something that can fit inside of a box, and that there’s more to the question of race than being considered a menace or a “credit-to-one’s race.” Heroically, Famuyiwa’s film reclaims the term “oreo” (the notion of being black-on-the-outside and white-on-the-inside) and uses it not as an insult, but as an identity marker that can be owned and redefined by those so referred to as such. Malcolm and his friends’ punk rock band, Awreeoh, is a further reclamation of the term in narrative form, a re-appropriation of a millennial insult to blacks in the same way that the reclamation of “nigga'” grew to prevalence during the ’90s. Dope allows its central character to form an identity outside of stereotypes or judgements, while understanding that the world is discordantly driven by these very same oversimplifications.
Overall: Like ’90s rap, Dope is a mix of intelligence, humor, and morally questionable decisions that don’t create a sum total of contradictions, but speak to the complicated nature of black identity in America.